Divorce Italian Style
Directed by: Pietro Germi
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Daniela Rocca, Stefania Sandrelli, Leopoldo Trieste
Why is Divorce Italian Style considered obligatory?
Divorce Italian Style is a main benefactor of America’s mid-century foreign-film appreciation. At the time, Hollywood was slowly seeing the erasure of The Hays Code, but the studio system hadn’t quite caught up to the techniques and stories other countries were telling. As a result, a significant portion of the American public sought their entertainment from European movies. Divorce Italian Style ran in American theaters for almost three years, bolstered by its dual draw as both an arthouse film and a gut-busting comedy. The film went on to earn three Oscar nominations, is currently at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and holds an 8/10 on IMDb.
–is the theme of the month, I thought I should finally get around to making good on his recommendation.
Baron Ferdinando “Fefe” Cefalù, is a cash-poor aristocrat whose family has had to sell off wings of their palazzo in order to stay afloat. Living across his courtyard is Angela, his beautiful 16-year-old cousin. She’s a hell of a prize–more delicate and demure than his insufferable wife, Rosalia. Rosalia has a grating laugh, a frugal nature, and an unfortunate unibrow. On top of these unforgivable features, she’s still desperately in love with Fefe after a dozen years of marriage–so annoying!
Because divorce is illegal in 1960s Italy, Ferdinando begins fantasizing about ways to kill Rosalia. Coincidentally, a court case has caught the nation’s eye in which a wronged housewife murdered her cheating husband and got only eight years in prison for it. This gives Baron Cefalù an idea: If he pushes his wife into another man’s arms, he could murder her and get off with a much lighter sentence than just straightforward divorce. Ferdinando figures that, since he’s a nobleman, he could lean into the court of public opinion and get that pesky eight-year sentence down to three or so.
As his schemes get more elaborate, Rosalia’s prove of love for Ferdinando stubbornly reveals itself. Even worse, Angela has been sent away to an all-girls’ school taught by nuns, so she and Fefe can’t be together as much. Just as the Baron is running out of ideas, an old flame of Rosalia’s, thought dead in WWII, has returned as an art professor. Armed with a new plan, Ferdinando plan to make good on at least one of his wedding vows: “Till death do us part.”
Viciously mean, appallingly misogynistic, and shockingly brazen–Divorce Italian Style is a quintessential example of the saying, “truth for the characters isn’t always truth for the audience.” These characteristics aren’t criticisms. Rather, the movie shows the despicable nature of arrogant, upper-class men, aided by double-standards in the law and societal norms.
Ferdinando Cefalù begins not as the most despicable man shown on screen (an “impressive” feat considering his attempted seduction of a minor). By the end, though, the audience is more than delighted to see his demise. Cefalù’s comeuppance, however, comes in a deliciously surprising manner. Not until a split second before it happened did I see where the movie was going. While satisfying, my eyebrows were raised for a good 20 minutes wondering how far Fefe’s farcical scheme would be allowed to continue. The plot takes its audience to some sour, dark places. Divorce Italian Style‘s most clever ruse, then, is being labeled as a romantic comedy.
The reason Divorce Italian Style gets away with being so entertaining despite its acidic nature? Marcello Mastroianni’s magnificent performance. That Fefe remains watchable while manipulating so many around him towards ruin speaks to Mastroianni’s talent. He leads the audience through proceedings as if they too are getting away with something naughty. Pietro Germi’s direction adds marvelous effect to Ferdinando’s point of view, from various murder fantasies to a hypothetical lawyer laying out, then editing an imagined defense.
Daniela Rocca, not to be outdone, gives Rosalia nuance and depth to the normally thankless role of the straight man. Pleading just shy of nagging, loving just shy of clinging, laughing just shy of braying–Rocca imbues Rosalia with minor flaws that Ferdinando hyperbolizes into hideous, prominent features (never mind the fact that Daniela Rocca was a literal supermodel). Every instance Ferdinando berates Rosalia puts the audience more on her side.
In awe both of the paradoxically natural-yet-comedically-heightened performances, I checked the Academy’s website to see if Divorce Italian Style had won any Oscars. It had–deservedly for screenwriting. Mastroianni was nominated as well, but Gregory Peck won that year for To Kill A Mockingbird, which oddly makes Divorce Italian Style the second film I’ve reviewed this year to lose that race.
Now that I’ve seen it, I hope the new couple whose wedding I attended steers clear of this one. I also hesitate to recommend Divorce Italian Style to people who don’t have the firmest grasp on media literacy. I’ve talked about this before, but satire always runs the risk of backfiring. If someone watching doesn’t get the joke, they could end up agreeing with the ludicrous points presented. Is Divorce Italian Style obligated to explain itself so that everyone gets what’s going on? Hardly. We just need better education on the matter. Broaching that subject in America, though, is like trying to tell one’s spouse to shave their unibrow.
Lest I come off as too snobby, I think most people will get a kick out of Divorce Italian Style. It’s not particularly high-minded, and it’s definitely not dry despite its age, language, and lack of color. Hell, the subtitles and black-and-white film stock may stand as excellent gatekeepers here. If a viewer isn’t willing to watch Divorce Italian Style because “it looks old” or “I don’t want to read,” they probably wouldn’t get it anyway.
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